FAO official: ‘Veganism is certainly not for everyone’

FAO official: “A vegan diet is often deficient in iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin D. The required supplementation to a vegan diet may be costly and may require access to a diverse set of pulses and vegetables that may not be readily available everywhere.” [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report The future EU livestock sector.

Veganism is certainly not for everyone, particularly when it comes to mother and children, as it is deficient in some important minerals and vitamins, Henning Steinfeld, an official from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), told EURACTIV in an interview.

“A vegan diet is often deficient in iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin D. The required supplementation to a vegan diet may be costly and may require access to a diverse set of pulses and vegetables that may not be readily available everywhere,” Steinfeld said.

Henning Steinfeld is the chief of FAO Livestock Information, Sector Analysis and Policy Branch (AGAL). He spoke to EURACTIV’s editor Sarantis Michalopoulos.

What is the current state of play when it comes to the global livestock sector and the constantly rising population? What are the estimates of the UN?

The population will grow from 7.7 to 9.7 billion by 2050, by which time 80% of the global population will be living in Asia or Africa. Importantly for agriculture, 68% of the population is projected to live in cities in 2050, up from 55% today. 90% of that increase will be in Asia and Africa. Analysis of recent trends suggests that the sizes of national herds tend to follow national demographic dynamics since most animal products consumed are produced domestically. Wealth also shapes livestock agri-food systems in two important ways. Wealthier people consume more animal-source foods and wealthier countries have a greater proportion of livestock production from intensive systems. It is in the transitioning economies of Africa and Asia where rapid change is most evident.

Over the last 30 years, the consumption of meat, milk and eggs has tripled in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), driven by growing populations, urbanisation, higher incomes and globalisation. Global demand for meat, milk and eggs will continue to grow under the ‘business as usual’ scenario: meat demand will increase by 80% by 2030 and by 200% by 2050. Following demographic trends, almost all of that demand growth will be in Africa and Asia, with demand dropping in Europe and North America.

The EU livestock sector has made steps toward sustainability through the CAP. What are the main challenges Europe will be faced with in the coming years when it comes to livestock production?

  • Consumers are increasingly aware and concerned about the environmental, ethical and social implications of their consumption choices. This results in a strong focus on the origins of food and how it was produced. The livestock sector has been quick to adjust to new consumer preferences and market trends – opting for antibiotic-free meat, for example.
  • Furthermore, in much of Europe, there is a growing trend towards more plant-based lifestyles. The livestock sector will simply have to accommodate the resulting drop in demand for animal-source foods.
  • Pressure will grow to address climate change from food and agriculture and livestock in particular. Counties will be increasingly required to formulate emissions targets and to develop policies towards low emissions livestock.
  • Trade may become more complex. The EU sets very high standards for trade in terms of the health and safety of workers, animal health and sanitary standards, antimicrobial use, environmental impacts and animal welfare. However, there are risks of trade disruptions due to the escalation of tariff-wars and devastating diseases such as African swine fever.

According to FAO, what should be done in order to accelerate the sustainable development of the livestock sector?

The sector has been growing, but such growth has not been even, with its majority occurring in intensive systems and with relatively little contribution from smallholder producers. Moreover, it is important to consider the diversity of production systems and the varied roles that livestock play for different social and economic groups. In terms of sustainability we look at the global livestock sector through four lenses: 1) food and nutrition security; 2) livelihoods and economic growth; 3) animal health and welfare; and 4) climate and natural resources use. These domains are interrelated and there can be both synergies and trade-offs between them that arise through different livestock sector actions and trends.

To enhance the sector’s contribution to food and nutrition security we must make the most of the unique nutritional role of animal-source foods: converging on healthy and nutritious diets for all. This is particularly important for the first 1,000 days of life. We must also acknowledge that ruminant livestock can convert pasture and forage into nutritious, human-edible food in many marginal areas where crop-growth would not be feasible. Food losses and waste along with livestock agri-food systems, as with other sectors of agriculture, must urgently be slashed.

Recognising the diverse roles that livestock play in livelihoods is essential. But many of these roles are non-productive, resulting in production inefficiencies: maintaining large herds as insurance against drought, for example. Replacing non-productive functions of livestock with modern alternatives, such as reliable and accessible financial services, is an important step towards helping inefficient producers focus on the productive functions of livestock, and so increase efficiency.

Much is to be done globally to reduce losses in production due to livestock diseases, reduce food-borne and zoonotic diseases, protect antimicrobials and improve the welfare standards under which livestock are kept. Improving animal health and welfare is fundamental to sustainability and has synergistic impacts across all four domains.

Finally, dealing with livestock’s impact on climate and natural resources is paramount. Whilst reducing excessive consumption of animal-source foods can play an important role, there are many ways to tackle the environmental impacts of livestock. At FAO we promote three broad approaches: 1) improving the efficiency of production; 2) increasing carbon capture by restoring degraded grasslands through regenerative grazing and preventing deforestation; and 3) promoting a circular bio-economy across livestock agri-food systems.

Specific studies recently pointed out that our eating habits should change and we should gradually phase out meat consumption, something that will directly affect the livestock. What’s your comment on that?

While there may be reduced demand in high-income countries, it is unlikely that meat consumption will be phased out any time soon. Demand will continue to grow substantially, particularly in low-income countries where consumption is still low. More generally, there are advantages of an omnivorous diet both at the supply side, by taking advantage of resources with low alternative value, and on the demand side, by providing nutritious food in bio-available forms. What we must strive for is a convergence on healthy and nutritious diets for all.

There is growing scepticism toward the current food systems. Critics suggest that they negatively impact climate change. Can we feed the world without intensive livestock production? 

There is no doubt that our current livestock systems contribute to climate change: we estimate about 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But we need to understand the diversity of livestock systems and the motivations of the livestock keepers and other players involved. For instance, intensive systems provide a regular supply of clean, affordable, nutritious food and are highly efficient despite relying on large amounts of inputs. In terms of GHG emissions per unit of product, intensive systems typically emit less than extensive systems. Indirectly though, intensive systems are linked to deforestation, disruption of nutrient cycles, pollution in various forms, the emergence of virulent pathogen strains and, often, with animal welfare issues.

It would be difficult to feed the growing, urbanizing population without intensive production. But there are important roles for more extensive and labour-intensive production systems also. There are plenty of opportunities to enhance the sustainability of both approaches to production.

Is veganism the solution to sustainably feed the world? (The Royal Academy of Medicine of Belgium has called for parents who raise their children as vegans to face prosecution after a number of deaths in schools, nurseries and hospitals.)

Veganism is certainly not for everyone – children and mothers, for example. A vegan diet is often deficient in iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin D. The required supplementation to a vegan diet may be costly and may require access to a diverse set of pulses and vegetables that may not be readily available everywhere.

But there is a growing concern over overweightness and obesity, and diet-related non-communicable diseases and livestock among other food products have certainly be implicated: particularly excessive consumption of red meat and highly processed meat.  Where consumed in excess, reduced consumption of animal-source foods will certainly have health and environmental benefits. We keep coming back to the need for convergence on healthy, nutritious diets.

Do you see lab-grown meat as a viable alternative to livestock production?

In vitro meat is a fascinating area of research but there are so many issues to be resolved before the production of in vitro meat could be scaled-up and considered a viable alternative to real meat. These include costs, input sources (e.g. fetal bovine serum), ethical and cultural issues, food safety and quality, quite apart from the difficulties in re-creating complex, realistic meat tissues. In terms of its environmental impact, studies quantifying the environmental impact of in vitro meat through a lifecycle analysis are limited and are based on experimental setups, rather than to operational setups. There is considerable investment in the field though and it is certainly an area to keep an eye on as it develops.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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